Over 4,000 people gathered at the Universal Hilton at Universal City today, and cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC  was a keynoter, in a discussion with Variety editor Peter Caranicas. Caranicas  opened by asking Pfister what it was like to work with Christian Bale, a question that had the packed-audience burst out in laughter. Bale is a delight to work with, answered Pfister, who said he had no idea what had happened to prompt Bale’s outburst at another cinematographer.

Pfister, a well known advocate of film, says he started filmmaking with his father’s  Super 8mm camera like so many other filmmakers. He started his career as a TV news cameraman, initially shooting with video cameras such as the earliest Betacam. Like many others in the industry, he worked on numerous Roger Corman films, became a camera operator and began DPing on low-budget independent films. It was one of these indie films that got him noticed by new director Chris Nolan, who brought him on board to shoot Memento. Since then, Pfister has shot five films for Nolan and is in pre-production on a sixth, Inception, which will begin shooting in the summer.

Pfister has gone on record many times about his preference for film over digital, but he expanded on those thoughts and revealed some interesting recent discoveries. For a recent Nike commercial, for example, he mixed 35mm with output from an Iconix lipstick camera that he attached to a swifter and moved on the floor. “That’s something you can’t do with a 35mm or 16mm cameras,” he says. “I was thrilled with it. There weas a reason for it.”

Pfister reports that he does a lot of his own handheld work  but praised the camera operators and gaffer he works with on a regular basis. With regard to IMAX, Pfister said that Dark Knight was the first time he shot the large film format; for that film he did one handheld shot and “nearly broke his back.” (He reported that the IMAX Corporation asked him to direct and shoot an IMAX nature documentary about animals. He says he really wants to do the film but would have to find the room in his schedule.)

His process in working on a film always begins with reading the script several times. “It begins for me with a read of the script where I don’t consider photography,” he says. “I read it as a story, purely for story to see if it’s a film I’d like to go see. I don’t pay any attention to my part of it or any technical aspect. It gives me a good sense of story. After I’ve been plowing through pre-production, I have to go back and read the  script again to get the linear picture which is broken into tiny pieces.”

Pfister mentioned that he just read Chris Nolan’s latest screenplay. ” Our conversation drifts around,” he says. “By the second reading, I’m thinking more about how I would photograph it. By the third time, I start writing stuff down. With Chris, I don’t get into storyboarding. What he wants in the film is up in his head, and I know enough of what’s up there, his style. I don’t need to see a storyboard.”

His preference is not really with comic book characters. “I’m interested in interesting, dark storytelling and that’s what Chris does,” he says. He also likes his smaller films, pointing out Laurel Canyon. “I’m not shooting films now that I wouldn’t be interested in watching, so I turn down most everything in between Chris’ films,” he says. He also noted that he can’t shoot those low-budget indie films anymore. “I have a big house and three kids,” he says. “Those days are over.”

Though Pfister prefers a photochemical finish, he reports he did go through a DI, for The Italian Job. “But that was a long time ago in terms of DI technology,” he says. “At the time, a lot of cinematographers were complaining of things going wrong with the process. Now I don’t hear people complaining as much.” But he and Nolan believe that film should be scanned in at 8K “to get every bit of the image on the screen.”  ‘

He also reported that he has seen “some cool things” shot with the RED camera as well as Dalsa’s digital camera. “David Fincher loves to shoot with the Viper because he loves to keep the camera rolling,” he says. “I like to be able to take an HD camera and tape it to the wheeldrive of a car. But I like to start with the best image quality.”

Pfister says he would be interested in using the RED camera to do some experimental work, mentioning that he loves the video work of artists such as Nam June Pak. “There’s an idea of accessibility with the RED,” he says. “It’s high res but small. I want to be able to experiment with that in a smaller way, where there aren’t 20 people around me.”

As to whether DPs should be compensated for the time they spend in the DI, Pfister agreed that “anytime you’re doing work on a film, you should be getting paid for it.” “However, we’re suckers for the artistry of it, and there’s a long term tradition that we don’t get pad for our time with the photochemical,” he says. “That’s changed a bit wit the DI. I believe we’ll be getting more compensation with the DI, but the studios will fight it. We can only do it with the director behind us. But what’s more important to us in the end is maintaining control of the image and making sure when it’s up on the screen, it’s the way we want it to be.”

As to 3D, Pfister says he’s enjoyed it, but hasn’t seen a dramatic feature yet in 3D, so it’s hard to comment on whether it’s a fad or a storytelling tool that will stay. “I wonder if it isn’t a little bit distracting,” he says. “It’s probably pretty cool for the right film. An action sequence designed properly could be  a blast. I’m looking forward to seeing Jim Cameron’s Avatar, and won’t comment more until I see it.”

One attendee asked Pfister where he thought the industry will be in 20 years. “I hope I’m wrong, but I think film will be gone,” he says. “I’d be sad to see theatrical distribution go away. It’s getting too good looking and easy to watch at home. But it’s a different interaction where there aren’t 400 people laughing in the room.”

Fromthe audience, cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC, who is president of the Local 600 camera guild, asked what role the union has done for his professional development. “I was thrilled to get in the union,” says Pfister, who reports he got in as an operator on Unstrung Heroes. “The union had stepped up to include these lower budget films. That made me a strong union supporter. It’s importantto keep the union strong to secure our futures.”